Today’s post is by author Adriana Barton (@AdrianaBarton).
I didn’t plan on writing a science memoir.
My first outline of Wired for Music (published in October 2022) focused on the neurology, anthropology and health benefits of music. In my mind, these elements held more than enough fascination to carry a book. But before my agent inked the deal, my publisher had one major request: “Can you put more of yourself in the book?”
“Sure,” I said, envisioning extra scenes from my childhood music lessons sprinkled in the first chapter or two. I sent a revised outline … and got the same feedback. “More of you.”
Readers of early drafts echoed the publisher’s words: “Your stories are so compelling. Can you add more of them?”
This more-of-you refrain was the last thing I wanted to hear.
As a science journalist, I was mainly interested in the geeky side of music—its effects on our brainwaves, neurochemicals, mental and physical health. I didn’t want to write about my sad-sack story as a failed cellist who no longer played the instrument I had studied for 17 years. Decades had passed since those painful days, and I had no desire to relive them.
Yet my tormented story with music was the one people wanted most. The injuries, the self-doubt. The high points, including a performance at Carnegie Hall, and the rigid training that had turned me away from classical music for good.
Maybe mining the past, I told myself, was the best way to draw readers to a book in the increasingly saturated music-on-the-brain vein.
Even as I assured my publisher I was up to the task, inwardly, I balked. Wired for Music would be my first attempt to write anything longer than a 4,000-word magazine feature. How was I supposed to graft a memoir onto chapters of popular science?
I found little in the way of useful instruction online, and no one I asked could offer a clear roadmap. Months, nay years, of frustration lay ahead.
And so, I offer my trial-and-error tale in hopes it will shorten the learning curve for other hybrid memoirists (reluctant or not).
To be clear, there is still an appetite for straight-up science books. Recent bestsellers include An Immense World, The Song of the Cell, Stolen Focus, The Insect Crisis. The list goes on.
More and more, though, we’re seeing hybrid memoirs such as Lab Girl (botany blended with the author’s coming-of-age as a scientist), The Invisible Kingdom (a fusion of memoir and reportage on chronic illness), The Soul of an Octopus (in which a naturalist ponders the nature of consciousness through communion with cephalopods) and the recent Heartbreak (a divorced journalist’s science-based exploration of heartache and grief).
All are great books, and in many cases, the personal angle might have been the author’s choice.
But nonfiction authors are under increasing pressure to permeate their books with their own experiences and emotions. Publishers seem convinced it’s not enough to distill research into well-written prose. Readers want an intimate story, too.
Like it or not, publishers may be right.
As the author-anthropologist Barbara J. King admitted on NPR, “I write science, but I read memoir.” Combining the two can turbo-charge the message, she wrote: “What may strike a reader as somewhat abstract in science writing may become more real when encountered in a searing narrative of a person’s own highly specific experience.”
Much as we are wired for music, humans are wired for story. (This wiring helps explain why even highly intelligent people get sucked in by conspiracy theories.) As conduits for informing, convincing and entertaining us, stories trump facts every time.
Unfortunately for authors, the hybrid memoir is tough to pull off. In my case, the structural demands of blending science with memoir became the defining challenge of my book—one I did not overcome until the final edit.
From the start, I knew my personal story didn’t have enough drama to sustain a narrative arc. I was never a child prodigy, nor did I quit classical music only to later catapult to fame as a rockstar. So, I decided a progression of science topics should be the backbone of the book.
I modeled my new outline after Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” Maslow (likely inspired by Blackfoot teachings) proposed that psychological growth depended on fulfilling a series of needs, starting with the necessities of survival and culminating in self-actualization. Using this framework, I started with a chapter on the evolutionary roots of music and ended with one on music’s role in the universal search for meaning.
So far, so good. But where did my story fit in?
I kept hoping to find the perfect hybrid structure and then fill in the blanks. But creative writing doesn’t work that way. A control-freak approach to structure can drain writing of its spark, leaving it as lifeless as the dully competent books churned out by ChatGPT. On the flip side, too little attention to structure makes for a hot mess.
During my second year of full-time work on the book, I followed an author friend’s advice: “Write first thing in the morning, stream of consciousness, and see what kinds of connections your mind comes up with.”
I gave myself several months to sink in to old memories, even when it felt like wallowing. At one point, I spent two weeks reading old news reports and weeping about a tragic loss, jotting down words for a passage that ended up occupying just two pages of my book. I didn’t always enjoy the process (I was already past deadline and needed to get cracking) but this suspended-animation phase was a crucial step in allowing my book to find its rhythm.
In between bursts of writing, I spoke with authors who had tackled the hybrid genre. Inevitably, they warned, some readers will complain about too much science while others will grouse about too much memoir. “You will never please everyone.”
But I could try to please myself.
For more than a year, I read hybrid memoirs including Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear; Hello I Want to Die Please Fix Me: Depression in the First Person; First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety; and Feasting Wild: In Search of the Last Tamed Food.
I noticed three things about hybrid memoirs that I liked most:
- The memoir elements were tightly integrated with the science passages, without dragging the reader through superfluous details and unrelated periods in the author’s life.
- While the book’s main topic (science, mental health, etc.) took center stage, the informational passages never droned on for more than four or five pages without a story break.
- Even if the memoir element was subservient to the science, the author experienced some kind of epiphany or personal transformation by the end.
In contrast, many of the less successful books did a bait-and-switch, hooking the reader with a compelling personal story at the start of the book and then hammering them with chapter after chapter of non-stop science.
With these points in mind, I began to plot my memoir passages in a loose progression, independent of the science sections. Then, using the index-card feature in Scrivener, I looked at the different ways the science and memoir passages could intersect. This process was often maddening, since the same anecdote could dovetail with any number of science concepts, depending on how the anecdote was framed. Gradually, though, the weighting of science and story became more balanced. Or so I thought.
When I delivered my manuscript (after two years of full-time writing and many more of research), none of the passages was boring or long-winded. My book was well on its way to publication, right?
My editor wrote back describing my narrative as choppy and emotionally unsatisfying. I’d welded the science passages together with personal stories without paying enough attention to chronology. The timeline was confusing, my editor said, and major scenes lacked the scaffolding needed to reach emotional heights.
Back to the drawing board—this time under intense stress. I had eight weeks to overhaul the manuscript.
Fortunately, my editor offered a structural solution: start and end each chapter with a personal passage, giving readers a touchstone to orient themselves in my story. I could still zip back and forth in time within each chapter, my editor said, but at least one thread of the book needed to be chronological.
At first, I resisted this plan. How could I summon meaningful anecdotes to illustrate the science concepts while ensuring these memories were in the right timeline for each chapter? This dilemma reminded me of the structural challenges Rebecca Skloot detailed about her bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. After years of tearing her hair out, she too decided that one of the narrative threads had to be chronological.
At the same time, my book needed a more emotionally satisfying conclusion. I reread notes from a webinar on memoir structure taught by Allison K Williams via Jane Friedman’s website (worth every penny). Williams emphasized that a memoir needs to build towards a personal transformation or resolution. If you don’t have a resolution to the fundamental problem or pain point presented at the start of the book, she said, you need to figure it out (or live the experiences you need to figure it out) before the writing is complete. Hybrid memoirs were no exception.
Brainstorming, I tried mapping my experiences onto the archetypical hero’s journey plot found in movies ranging from Star Wars to The Wizard of Oz. (Time was tight, so why try to reinvent the wheel?)
In this age-old story template, the “hero” (or average person like me) faces an untenable situation (in my case, an unresolved relationship to music). After a period of struggle, the hero learns a lesson, wins a victory with that knowledge and then returns to the starting point, transformed.
While my book is mostly chronological, Wired for Music starts in medias res, with me in my thirties haunted by the cello hiding in a battered case behind the couch. My hero’s journey involves a burning need to confront the forces that severed my relationship to music, understand where music comes from in our species, along with its therapeutic effects, and then grapple with my inner barriers to creating a healthier relationship with music—and myself.
After frantic weeks of rearranging chunks of narrative and writing new passages to bookend each chapter, I managed to meet my deadline. This time, my editor gave Wired for Music the green light.
Months later, the blend of science and memoir became my book’s calling card. “Thoroughly researched and tenderly written,” wrote The Globe and Mail. “Witty and soulful,” Publishers Weekly declared. Wired for Music has been featured in The Boston Globe, a BBC science podcast, CTV’s daytime talk show “The Social” and many other media outlets.
I would never recommend writing a hybrid memoir as a first book. But now that the heavy lifting is done, I can confirm that bridging the gap between research and personal experience can become a book’s greatest strength—as long as the author is prepared for a Herculean endeavor.
P.S. I highly recommend the following resources:
- Jane Friedman’s site and classes (naturally! I’ve signed up for webinars on marketing, writing, self-editing, etc)
- Pandemic University (a “pop-up” writing school; I learned a lot from a webinar on the role of tension in writing by Ayelet Tsabari)
- Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative (a liberating argument against sticking to predictable story progressions)
- The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (in which Vivian Gornick explains the difference between a chronicle of personal facts and an insightful narrative with a strong angle and voice)
- Book coaches (I worked with the lovely and astute writer-editor Marial Shea)
Adriana Barton is a journalist, a former staff reporter at Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and the author of Wired for Music: A Search for Health and Joy Through the Science of Sound. She lives in Vancouver with her husband and son. Follow her at AdrianaBarton.com.